False Victories, Paying Dues and Being The Bigger Person

Please note: this post started on Facebook.

Which is fine, some of my most popular posts start there but almost all of my friends of FB are people that I know professionally, and this perception is one that might help people in various stages of their musical journey and not just people who are professional musicians.

“Awesome!  That’s Telling Them!”

This email exchange has gotten a lot of traffic for the Dangerous Minds website.


If you haven’t read it, a UK recording artist Whitey was apparently asked by a company called Betty TV to use his music for free and, in reply, Whitey wrote an angry screed, that had a lot of truths in it (such as the fact that companies should allocate money for budgets for music if they want to use it.).

So Whitey yelled at the man (that sounds strange but I’m sure you don’t choose a name like Whitey without wanting to be confrontational) and this act resonated with a number of artists – understandably so as it’s perceived as spitting truth to power and I only know a handful of artists who are fairly compensated for what they do.

On the other hand, just like the  high-fiving reactions to the Amanda Palmer crowdfunding success (later on to be known as the railroad spike in the coffin of Amanda Palmer’s career), the reaction to this bothered me as well.  On FB, along with the link to the article, I wrote the following:

This has made the rounds lately. Loads of attaboys and that’s tellin’ ’em.


Here’s what companies do when they get a long winded screed. They read the first sentence or two, discard it and go to musical act #3,184 who are more than happy to give their tracks away for free for exposure.

Musicians have been taken advantage of long before Col. Tom Parker ever met Elvis. You can write your ex a long letter telling them that you’re great and they’re awful and get identical emotional satisfaction.

It’s a hollow victory.

I felt a little bad for the ranting so commented on it about a 1/2 minute later:

Sorry, I’m just so weary of false congratulations. It’s being psyched that someone didn’t pry the quarter out of your hand and not realizing that your wallet was already stolen before you ever left home.

In response, a man I truly perceive to be a brother from another mother, wrote this:

I’ve worked in enough ad agencies to know that’s true. So what will it take to get more fair compensation for the creative class?


Perception of economic success.

That’s what it will take.

No one expects Sean Combs or Jay Z to give tracks away for free because they know that both people are already wealthy.

This tells us several things:

  1. Those artists can afford to say no to any business dealings because they are perceived as self sufficient.
  2. Those artists have money because they have large fan-bases and are perceived to be successful.

The other factor

There’s a third factor in this as well. Because people who work in mid-level jobs in ad agencies or the Film/ TV/ Music or Book industries either go big to try to claw their way up the ladder or do everything they can do to not get fired.  Expect most people to reside in category B 95% of the time and leaping over to category A when they think it’s a sure thing.

These people want to get artists with name recognition when possible because if the project tanks someone will have to get sacrificed to the god of client accountability.  If they have someone with a proven track record they can fall back on, “I don’t know what to tell you.  We used this person who they used for (insert successful movie/ad/etc here).

At the production level, you generally have people who have unimaginably tight deadlines. Those people want content that will fit the scene (or at least not draw attention away from the scene) and then move on to the next edit in the infinite number of edits for that project and future projects to come.

This is why placement companies are always looking for music.  I did some of this in college, working for a company where I’d listen to a huge number of tracks in their music library and then categorize each track in as many pre-defined parameters that it fit (“Happy”, “Uplifting”, “Major”, “Light”, etc).  This all got attached to a database, and then when a project came in and the director or the editor said, “I need something sad” or “minor” or “slow”, they’d have a hundred tracks ready to slip in.

Putting The Danger Back In Dangerous Minds

Production work is all about speed and efficiency and minimizing expenses where ever possible.

It’s somewhat odd to me that the Dangerous Minds page has gotten traction as the only dangers present are ones that neither the e-mail author or the website author have addressed.

The main hidden danger is tipping your hand in a weak negotiating position in the face of decreased sources of viable economic revenue.  A couple of other posts from DigitalMusicNews.com have also made the rounds in musician’s circles on FB.  This one talks about 5 companies that won’t be here 5 years from now (Pandora, one of the remaining 3 major labels, Spotify, Live Nation and MySpace music).  This one, talks about “the 13 most pervasive insidious lies of the music industry” and while it’s pretty dean on for it’s not pretty).

Realize that people in positions of power do not write long screeds about why they won’t do something.  They say no.  They may explain that answer (politely) in a sentence or two, but generally they’ll make a counter offer and they move to the next thing.

Why do they do that?

Because what comes up, invariably comes down at some point.

Because this is  an industry that is completely fueled by perception and networking.

Because there is no advantage to burning bridges.

So when you go off on someone in self righteous indignation, you just tip your hand let people know that you have no negotiating power and that you’re likely to be difficult in the future.

I’ve never heard of Whitey.  I doubt I’ll ever hear of him again.

So how do you get perceived economic success?

You pay dues.

I wrote about this in my e-book Selling It Versus Selling Out, but let me offer up a few things that augment that material well.

When one entrepreneur started her PR company from scratch, she knew that she would have to establish a track record to get paid.  Her plan then was to contact local businesses with bad advertising and PR campaigns and offer an initial service for free.  If they got better results, they could pay her for their next campaign.

She gutted it out and two things happened.

Many of the businesses that had increased revenue came back to her for their next campaign.

With a proven track record of success, she could go to other businesses and promote her services.

In a chapter about paying dues from that book, I stated that:

As an artist, you will very likely experience a long road of strange requests and expectations known in the business as “paying dues”.  Even your rock star idols have to do it.  Trust me, no one wants to get up at 4 am to play a 7 am set for morning television to promote their new release/concert/tour.


The thing to remember is that paying dues is a reciprocal relationship.


When you get to the TV or radio studio at 4 or 5 am to try to be ready to rock out by 7 or 8 am, you are doing so to promote yourself.  You are doing so to generate interest and to try to get people to follow what you are doing.  When you are starting a band, you will have to play a lot of venues for (in a best case scenario) little if any money.  This is done to get the band some exposure, to get some word of mouth promotion happening and to get the band’s live show together.  All valid points.  You aren’t getting paid, but you are getting something for your time.


A number of people will attempt to capitalize on this mindset to exploit you whenever possible.


Often this is not the Machiavellian plotting that the above statement would initially imply but is instead, merely misguided expectation. People are so used to seeing musicians willing to jump through hoops to play for free that it creates an expectation that is status quo.


This mindset is unique to music. If you work at an office and people find out that you play guitar, expect that they will ask you to play birthday parties or other events for free.  To contrast this idea, next time you have a plumbing problem, try calling a plumber and asking if he or she would be willing to show up and fix the problem for free and see what happens.



…This is an old challenge in business put in a new wrapper. 

As an [emerging] artist you’re probably going to have to convince people that they should pay for your services….You should expect to get your hands dirty and put in work if you want to adjust some people’s mindset.


Again, this is an industry that is fueled by product and largely driven by perception.

The Catch-22

I read an interview with James Hetfield once where he said that if he goes to Guitar Center and someone sees him playing an amp that by the time he gets home that the amp company has contacted him about a possible endorsement deal.  He went on to say something to the effect of, “Where were these people when I was using the same set of guitar strings for moths at a time because I couldn’t afford to change them?  Now that I actually have the money to buy whatever amp I want – they want to give them to me for free.”

By the time that you have the clout to be in the alpha negotiating position, you won’t need to make the deal.  The person who can walk away is always the one with more power.

Understand the landscape

If you’re an unknown or emerging artist starting a new band and you are playing your own music in a bar/club/non-traditional venue, you might not get paid.  If there is no audience, and no guarantee for the venue – this is a reasonable expectation. (And most pro musicians would avoid this scenario like the plague unless they wanted to rehearse their set in a live context).  There’s a difference between making no money to pay dues and making no money to pay the bar owner.  As a professional, you should know what you are getting into and make an informed decision and roll the dice that playing out will pay dividends somewhere down the road.

There’s a recent guit-a-grip post that addresses an important aspect of this:

If you’re currently making six figures a year in your day job, you are sorely mistaken (or outright delusional) if you’re taking on something new at the ground level and assuming that your time in your new venture will initially have the same value as what you’re currently making.


This also applies to many established artists as well.

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to work with a master musician who was releasing his first solo cd after having lived the shadows of being a member of a well known band.  His music was really good, challenging and a lot of fun to play.  I pulled a group together for him and we rehearsed for the better part of a year to promote an upcoming tour.

He got an offer to play at REDCAT in Los Angeles and turned it down because the pay was only $800.  The cd has been out for about a year at that point, and sales were low.  It had recouped none of the money that was advanced.  The band was solid and a gig like that would have gotten a lot of press and he would have sold whatever CDs he brought with him.  It could have been something that kickstarted other opportunities.

Instead, we played an outdoor memorial gig for free in a park with a backline that was largely non-functional.  That project faded and now he’s touring with an incarnation of the same group that he was trying to break free from because that group can demand a higher premium for shows.

Getting back to the initial subject.

Am I saying Whitey has to give his music away?  Absolutely not.  He has some clout but what he should have done is used the moment to discuss the point calmly and maturely.

There’s an old expression about relieving yourself where you eat.

  • In the entertainment industry, you’re likely to find your meals as scattered scraps initially so be very careful what you say to who and how you say it.  The intern today might be the music director tomorrow.
  • Be the bigger person and try to treat everyone well, whether their behavior deserves it or not.
  • Be prepared to educate people and to have to demonstrate your value to increase your negotiating position.
  • Rome wasn’t built in a day, this industry is as much about people who can do high quality work quickly and consistently as it is about being able to endure in the meantime.
  • UItimately, this is about understanding your value, increasing your visibility and aligning other people’s perception with your own.  It hinges then, on a belief in yourself or in an oft-quoted paraphrased I stole from Daren Burns,

“If you place no value on yourself – no one else will either.”

So know who and where you are, and don’t tip your hand when you’re not in the best position to negotiate.

As always, thanks for reading!